Rating:Too many neo-psychedelic bands mistake freeform anarchy for true psychedelia, thinking that a confused and disoriented listener is functionally equivalent to one who’s been transported. Others assume that they can alchemically transform formulaic progressions into gold if they wrap them in enough distortion and echo. On Maui Tears, Sleepy Sun rises above their lesser peers, delivering a phenomenal album that invites hours of quality replay time. Pick your favorite headphones or, better yet, let it shine out through a good set of mains and share it with your neighbors. The songs are built upon interesting structures, offering plenty of depth to support open-ended jams that never become untethered or trapped in their own bubble. The band has also honed their dynamic sense over the last couple of years to accommodate cathartic growls and ringing highs, but also open spaces with nuanced details. The individual songs offer plenty of opportunities for sonic indulgence, but the pacing and variety across the tracks make this a wonderful collection. The musical feel is consistent even if the tunes vary quite a bit, which uncovers another wise decision—Sleepy Sun also avoids a third trap common to the genre: relying on a simple unifying theme. Concept albums are cool, but the risk of cliché or pomposity is daunting.
The album opens with “The Lane,” a tune that the band has had in their live set for a while now. Jangling guitars channel exultant sunshine and show off the core of Sleepy Sun’s sound. Matt Holliman and Evan Reiss harmonize their two guitars, blending melodic lines into a shifting current of warm fuzz and overdriven tubes. The two parts lock into formation and then split apart before finding common ground again. Underneath, the bass takes on a skeletal hint of rhythm guitar to round out the aural spectrum. The Velvet Underground influence is there in the droning undertones, but Sleepy Sun favors a sweeter balance. The echoing juxtaposition of competing parts is filtered through a distorted shimmer and then stuffed into a thoroughly saturated mix. Frontman Bret Constantino’s vocals contribute to the VU comparison, sunk deep within the mix and draped with slapback echo like Nico’s parts. Distant and buried, it can be hard to wrench the lyrics free, but when they come through, the imagery is heady. On the thoughtful bridge, Constantino sings, “In a pool of roses, we could swim/ It’s only a grand illusion of our earthly whim, a glimpse.” Glimpses are enough to beguile.
The second track demonstrates the power of contrasts. After “The Lane” crashes down, “Words” rises immediately. This time, the twin guitars are clean and acoustic, each one fingerpicking its own chord voicings to build the gentle interlocked structure. The stereo separation splits the two, making it easy to distinguish them. A slab of electric guitar surfs in with the vocal, crackling with buzzing overtones, but, despite the crunch, the acoustics are still clear and strong. The combination leaves the song open for interpretations: a delicate surface can’t quite hide the grind of doubt and conflict. Or maybe the structure is what keeps the negativity in check. Either way, the complexity offers enough distortion to connect to the earlier track but this song finds its own direction.
Part of the album’s appeal also lies in the band’s development. This slacker psychedelia phase has bloomed since singer Rachel Fannan left the band in 2010. Fannan contributed a folk-rock flavor and her voice could be haunted or playfully innocent. Losing her forced Constantino’s personality to the surface: a raw need for a grand gesture, swaddled in oblivion-seeking waves of sound. Where 2012’s Spine Hits set the foundation for the band’s evolution, Maui Tears solidifies the aesthetic while expanding their palette and control. Songs like “11:32” may start with a chaotic snarl of feedback, full of thunder and whine, but they harness that energy with a solid, mid-tempo drumbeat that powers a guitar riff that’s as unswerving as a fixated three-year-old. The verses punch like Jack White sitting in with a no-name garage-psych outfit. The music swirls before dipping into the mellow bridge, redolent with melting whammy bar detune. The spacy interlude celebrates a moment of hang time before falling back into the drive. It’s a tribute to the band’s collective vision that they can pull off these shifts without losing coherence or momentum.
The album closes with a climactic opus. The title track runs well over 10 minutes and channels Pink Floyd’s “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” along with fragments of early King Crimson, Led Zeppelin and Porcupine Tree. From the simple bass line at the start, accompanied by light stickwork rhythm, to the acid-burned guitar jam in the middle, it’s a long, meandering trek along the fringes of a questionable head-trip that culminates in a tribal rite finish, mediated by hallucinogens. Complete with flute solo. It’s the perfect bit of excess to wrap up the album and inspire yet another round with the demons.